Interstellar: Good Space Film, Bad Climate-Change Parable

A story about looking for a new world is more exciting than a movie about saving an ailing one.

Paramount Pictures

There is already plenty of evidence of America’s alarming inability to reckon with climate change, but perhaps none is more surprising than this: Even Hollywood doesn’t get it. The entertainment industry is rightly thought of as a haven for progressive thought, but in the last few years, while it has made big-budget blockbusters about income inequality (The Hunger Games), the dangers of a corporate government (The Lego Movie), and the surveillance state (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Hollywood has yet to adequately address the issue of climate change. Of course, neither has any government in the world, and maybe for the same reason: When faced with unpleasant realities, we all prefer a fantasy.

Which brings us to Interstellar. The film has divided public and critical opinion; to some, it is a majestic and optimistic work of science fiction, but its detractors find the narrative structure too clunky, the dialogue too corny, and its insights about the transcendent power of love hollow and unearned. But no matter how you feel about Interstellar as a piece of entertainment, one thing should be agreed upon: As a climate-change parable, it fails.

Climate change is never mentioned by name in the film, but writer/director Christopher Nolan uses its imagery to define the terms of his story. Interstellar is set in a near-future Earth on the verge of total ecological collapse, with drastic changes in weather patterns and devastating food shortages driving human beings to the brink of extinction. We never learn exactly what caused this devastation (there is a vague reference to a crop disease called “a blight”), but Cooper, the tough and tender protagonist played by Matthew McConaughey, pins it on a failure of the human spirit: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt,” he says early on. When he is asked to lead a secret NASA expedition to look for another planet to colonize, he gets a chance to live by those words.

Those words also serve as Nolan’s plea to the Western world to invest more in research and technological invention—which means that after TV’s Cosmos and this year’s terrific documentary Particle Fever, Interstellar is the latest attempt to arouse interest in the sciences through pop culture. But by placing his plea in the context of our climate change crisis, Nolan has set up a false choice: In the world of Interstellar, mankind can either leave the planet behind, or it can stay here and die. The choices that humans—here in the real world—actually have to make regarding climate change and the future of the earth are much more complicated, and are nowhere to be found onscreen.

The heroes in Interstellar do not talk much about their mistakes on Earth. Nor do they learn anything of value except that love, you know, transcends space and time. And so it stands to reason that whatever planet the humans in Interstellar end up colonizing, they will destroy it just as surely as a virus destroys its host. The film does give voice to the idea that we can at least acknowledge our mistakes; an early scene has Cooper’s father-in-law (John Lithgow) lamenting the human excess that defined the 21st century, but it only comes off as a token, as the movie is clearly more interested in looking forward than to the past. In this way, Nolan fails to look inward and uncover the flaws and solutions in humanity; instead, he prefers to gaze up at the stars and fantasize.

Of course, filmmakers have a right—or even a duty—to fantasize, but a small tweak could made Interstellar’s message much more relevant to the present day. There is a good scene early scene in the film, a parent-teacher conference in which Cooper discovers that the latest version of his daughter’s textbooks states that NASA faked the Apollo 11 moon landing in order to trick the Soviet Union into wasting all of its resources in the space race. When the teacher explains that children need to be taught not to sink precious funding into fantasies like space travel, Cooper replies that the Apollo missions created technology that led to the MRI machine, showing how investments in space travel can lead to unintended benefits on Earth. It’s a great point. Cooper’s subsequent mission does lead to discoveries—black-hole data showing how to manipulate gravity—that save humanity by allowing it to leave Earth. It would have been more compelling, though, for Nolan to have those discoveries be ones that allow humanity to stay on Earth.

For those who care about climate change, the film feels like a missed opportunity. But it’s not a surprising one, given Hollywood’s recent track record. Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all-time had a pro-environment ethos, but amidst the three-dimensional cinematography and one-dimensional performances, the message seemed lost on the audience. More recently, two indie films—The East and Night Moves—tried to put a human face on the radical environmentalist movement, but they both made crucial errors in depicting their protagonists as all-too-willing to sacrifice human lives to make their points. In real life, green activists sometimes destroy property, but never people, and these films would have provided great fodder for anti-environmentalists, if anyone had seen them.

Why does Hollywood keep getting the environment wrong? Maybe it’s for the same reasons that politicians have been unable to fix it: Because the ways that climate change and other environmental crises can be addressed are not dramatic or awe-inspiring. The dangers of doing nothing are horrifyingly cinematic, but the solutions are prosaic and dull. But it would be nice to see a filmmaker try to make them entertaining. After watching the real-life NASA fail even to get an unmanned rocket off the ground two weeks ago, the events of Interstellar seems even more far-fetched, and left me wishing its solution did exist not in the dirt or the stars, but somewhere in between.